'One of a kind' - Remembering Raphaël Géminiani

The former professional rider and sports director passed away on Friday at the age of 99

Raphaël Géminiani would have loved to be at stage seven of this year’s Tour de France. He would have loved analysing the duel between Remco Evenepoel and Tadej Pogačar in the time trial to Gevery-Chambertin. And he would have loved the local wine. I can see him now in fact, holding court with a glass of local Burgundy, opining on the exploits of the day and recounting those of legends like Fausto Coppo and Jacques Anquetil. But as the stage finished, news broke that the 99-year-old passed away near his home in Clermont-Ferrand.

Géminianiwas a giant of a man, and you only had to meet him once to remember him forever. It has been said that he was the greatest rider never to win the Tour de France, but as much as he was a beast on the bike, he was adored in the French cycling community as a mesmerising raconteur and all around bon vivant.

Géminiani was known to be a larger than life character, and in many ways he was. After all, many gave him up for dead when he fell into a coma after contracting malaria while on a bicycle exhibition race with his friend Fausto Coppi in West African in 1960. Coppi, of course died within days. But despite receiving his last rites, Géminiani came out of his coma and lived a colorful life for decades.

It is perhaps only fitting that Géminiani died during the Tour de France. Géminiani didn’t just love the Tour, he quite literally presided over it for decades, be it as rider, director or journalist.

Raphaël Géminiani photographed outside his home in Clermont-Ferrand in 2020.

“Raphaël was a great personage of cycling,” Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme said this morning before the start of stage eight in Semur-en-Auxois. “He was a great cyclist, a great director sportif, he was witty. What really impressed me the last few times I saw him was that, while he could tell you about what happened in the 1950s and 60s, he was aware of everything that was happening currently, in cycling and life.”

I first met Géminiani when I covered I started covering the Tour de France in the 1990s, but I only got to know him in recent years when I would visit him as his retirement home in Clermont-Ferrand. “Ca va l’Américain,” he would say when I called. I would take him out to lunch at one of his favorite restaurants. He never held back, champagne, fine wine and the best food were always on the menu. It proved to be a small price to pay to listen to his first-hand stories. 

Géminiani was born and raised in Clermont-Ferrand where his parents found work in the Michelin factory after fleeing Fascist Italy. “I lived in the Cité Michelin. It was a great place to grow up. There was a Michelin supermarket, a swimming pool and a school. Everything was there,” he once said.

Growing up in Nazi-occupied France, Géminiani quickly found cycling, quite simply because “it was one of the only things we were allowed to do”.

Coppi was his hero. But while he always considered him the greatest cyclist ever, he struggled with the Italian when they were teammates on the Bianchi team in 1952. And while he butted heads with Jacques Anquetil when they raced together, the two were inseparable when he became Anquetil’s manager and sports director after retiring.

“We were definitely ahead of our time when it came to the race against the clock,” Géminiani explained. “We really broke it down. We studied position. We studied weight. We studied the wind and weather conditions, everything. We put helium in his tires instead of air. Why? Helium is lighter. It’s as simple as that. We started with the first skinsuits made of silk. I would go out on the race circuit before with newspapers and burn them at certain spots to see just where the wind was coming from. And Jacques loved that. But you had to earn Jacques’ confidence. And you had to be psychological with him.”

With Géminiani conversation was always unfiltered, and he was unchained before Netflix made it a catch word. He could be brutally honest. Of Raymond Poulidor he said simply: “He spent his career on the wheels. He never attacked. He spent five years riding the wheel of Jacques and the Saint Raphaël team and five years riding on the wheels of Merckx and his team.”

By all accounts Géminiani could likely had won the Tour himself, and he remains the only rider to finish in the top 10 in all three grand tours in the same year, when he finishing third in the Vuelta a España, fourth in the Giro d’Italia and sixth in the Tour de France in 1955. But winning the Tour never came easily. In 1958, his fortunes appeared to change. Starting the Tour on a small Centre-Midi team, he stormed into yellow late in the race. But after four days he cracked under the attack by Luxembourg climber Charly Gaul.  Hoping for some support from his former French national team, he got none, and crossing the line he screamed “You are all Judas!”.

But whenever I talked to Géminiani he had no regrets. “Life is like a book,” Géminiani he would say. “You can’t go back and change things. I definitely could have won the Grand Tours but I liked to help others and I didn’t really like others to help me. But I had a long career and always raced the way I wanted to race.”

As rider, sports director or commentator Géminiani was many things, but mostly he was one of a kind. And anyone who ever had the chance to meet him will likely miss him. 

Shop now